Making waves in contemporary German literature, Olga Grjasnowa is back in her homeland of Azerbaijan to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, interested in the power structures there.
Olga Grjasnowa has caused a stir with her political approach to writing fiction in German. Born in Baku in 1984, she emigrated to Germany in 1996 and studied writing at the renowned German Literature Institute in Leipzig. Never one to mince words when it comes analyzing power and politics, she believes the power-holders in Baku are using the Eurovision Song Contest to polish their image.
I read that you were rather appalled at how famous your home country has become. Why is that?
Because Azerbaijan was always a country no one ever heard anything about. Perhaps at the beginning of the 1990s, during the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Otherwise, the country just hasn't appeared in the news. And now, everyone's talking about it; it's on every channel. It's a weird feeling. Before, whenever anyone asked me where I came from, it took forever to explain where Azerbaijan is located.
How was it for you, leaving Baku in 1996 at the age of 11, and then going back to the city for the first time in 2011? How did it feel? Did you recognize the place?
It was odd. Some of the places were familiar, like the house where I grew up and my old school, the inner city. But a great deal of buildings have gone up since then. When we left the city, a lot of it lay fallow. Trash collection, the infrastructure were almost completely ruined. When I returned in 2011, I found a city whose facades sparkled, and everything functioned properly. Of course, it all comes at a cost. But the changes have come swiftly. The city has gotten an almost completely different look due to the things that have been built in the past 15-16 years.
Is it all really new, or are they Potemkin villages?
No, it's all really new. They are buildings that are really being used. Many of the changes took place even before the hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest - roads were built, you could actually call some of them highways.
So one can actually see and touch the things that were built with petrodollars?
I read that the male residents of Baku were asked via television not to wear white tennis socks during the contest. Is that correct?
I can't vouch for that, but I was told the same thing.
Is the city in ESC fever?
Everyone is really excited and people are guessing at who will make it to the finals. Also, people are wondering whether or not there will be clashes and demonstrations, and whether "Sing for Democracy" [a counter event organized by human rights activists during the ESC in Baku] will actually take place.
You have bluntly called the regime in Baku "completely corrupted." Given that, how is it possible to blithely enjoy the song contest? Is that even possible?
Well, in terms of the music, one also cannot mindlessly enjoy the whole event. It's like with the European Soccer Championship in Ukraine. They're always political events, too.
Can one separate them?
Not in my opinion.
Given that, do you consider the Eurovision Song Contest a showplace for those in power, the Aliyev clan, to present themselves in a light in which they want to be seen - as an aspiring, prospering country straddling Europe and Asia?
Absolutely! It's also about attracting investments to Baku. People want to show just how westernized Azerbaijan is by demonstrating the great conditions in Baku for investors to build relationships there.
What should one be aware of so as not to be duped by the veneer?
It's hard to say. One has to remember that it's a region where not one democracy exists. Azerbaijan lies between Russia, Iran, Georgia and Armenia - nations that cannot boast of having stable, democratic systems. There may be a ceasefire, but the territorial conflict with Armenia has not yet been resolved. Of course one must call for human rights and democracy there, but also keeping the situation and the conflicts in the entire region in mind. I do not think respect for human rights will grow there much in the near future.
What would you consider to be good media coverage - on the Eurovision Song Contest, and on the situation in the country in general?
I would like to see more varied media coverage that does more than just scratch the surface.
I read that you've called the music "complete crap." But are you getting into the Eurovision mood anyway now?
I'm not really interested in the contest as such but in its staging, in how the Aliyev government is instrumentalizing it politically. So much money has been spent on it. I'm expecting it to be a superlative event.
Even more glitz and glamour than in Kiev?
It will be much more.
But the people of Baku: are they all part of the excitement, or do they just shake their heads over all the hoopla and the circus going on there?
Well, one has to make distinctions: there are the dumb nationalists, who can't be helped anyway. And then there are those who are reasonable, but who have developed a biting sense of cynicism. For them, the whole thing is just a huge waste of money - and event for image-improvement. Money is being spent on infrastructure, it's true, but that's only accessible to a fraction of the population, and money isn't being invested in schools and universities.
Surely you have also taken a good look at the ESC candidates. Who's your frontrunner?
Turkey. I've watched all the clips with two friends who know a lot about the contest. My gut feeling tells me it's going to be Turkey.
Interview:Birgit Görtz / als
Editor: Rick Fulker